Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Personal Vs Genre

Kevin: What's your take on screenwriting competitions? Do you feel there is a bias against genre writers? If Die Hard and Brokeback Mountain were competing in the same writing competition it seems to me Brokeback would win every time. As a genre writer, are the odds even more against me?

This is a really good and difficult question. This will be a long post. The quick answer is that there is probably a tendency to choose personal or intimate screenplays over more popcorn fare. This is not to say that there’s a deliberate bias against genre writers but the problem with spec genre scripts (and even some commissioned ones) is that they can feel samey, familiar, derivative or just a lame knock-off of the latest hit. If you’re submitting a genre script to a screenwriting competition, two main factors will help you stand out: a really strong concept and a highly polished style of writing (crisp, lean and stylish).

Let’s go back to 2004. I had been a script reader for four years at this stage, dishing out the dirt on all the scripts that came my way. So, I decided it was time to ‘put up or shut up’. I had to write a script that would demonstrate that I knew what I was talking about, and would represent a good sample of my writing abilities. I dismissed my two or three genre scripts I had written to-date, and started afresh with a low-concept, low-key coming-of-age drama set in Ireland. I wanted to show that I could create an original story with interesting characters and put them through an emotionally charged story. The result was Run For Home, which won me a BBC Bursary in 2004 and went on to be developed by Parallel Films (producers of Intermission and Breakfast on Pluto). The BBC judging panel told me that it was Run For Home’s emotion that made it the winner (although, naturally, it was a very close call between Ruth and Martin, the other two finalists). To this day, the script gets me meetings and assignments (I think it’s my agent’s favourite) so as a basic strategy, writing the script has been extremely worthwhile indeed.

As a reader, you do respond to scripts that have ‘heart’ or move you in some way. The ability to conjure emotion from the screenplay format is a skill that should not be underestimated. Genre scripts don’t often get that luxury as they’re more focused on plot and action rather than character or emotion. If Die Hard and Brokeback Mountain were competing in the same writing competition, it would be natural to assume that Brokeback would win every time but Die Hard stood out because of its characters (great hero, even better villain) and its exciting plot. Brokeback’s emotion was certainly evident in the screenplay but it wasn’t exactly a riveting read (and anyway Die Hard & Brokeback mightn’t be the best examples as they’re based on a book/short story, so they have some leverage before they hit an exec’s desk).

For Red Planet 2007, we were open to any genre and any script. It’s fair to say that only a few genre scripts made it through to the 2nd round, and even fewer made it to the final shortlist. Those that did make an impression stood out because of their original premise (or a neat twist on a familiar idea) and backed it up with a polished style of writing, making the script easy to read and maintaining an interest in the story. Sam J by Joanna Leigh was easy to spot as the winner, even as we were still finalising the shortlist. It had an interesting and original idea, and was written with style and assurance. True, it wasn’t ‘high concept’ but it was a genre script (biopic). It was interesting to note that a few ‘true stories’ and biopics made it through to the 2nd round as generally they do stand out with more appeal and interest. Original concepts and stories are more of a hard-sell, especially from an unknown writer. The premise and writing really needs to be strong to grab your attention and make that all-important impression.

If you really want to know about how genre scripts fare in writing contests, all you have to do is check out the past winners of the major screenplay competitions. The Nicholl, Blue Cat, Red Planet etc. The most illuminating competition regarding “personal scripts Vs genre scripts” was Project Greenlight, the script contest spearheaded by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. Project Greenlight stood out from the other competitions in that it was going to produce the winning script. In its first year, they chose a touching coming-of-age drama, Stolen Summer, a really sweet script. The result? It bombed, big time.

The next year, they tried to shake it up a bit but still chose a more personal and intimate story. The result? Another bomb. For its third (and final) year, they went for a genre script, a horror called Feast, having learnt their lessons with their previous winning scripts. Feast didn’t get a cinema release (to my knowledge) but Project Greenlight has proved that there is a marked difference between a general screenwriting competition looking for new writers and a screenwriting competition that is looking for a script to make into a commercial feature film.

In the UK, you have MySpace Movie Mashup, in which the public choose the winning pitch (this year’s winning script/pitch being David Lemon’s Faintheart). And Kaos have also launched a competition to find a feature length script that they will produce & release (budget £2 million). It’s not genre specific but seeing as they’re going to make the film, it’s probably fair to say that the winning script will (or should) have some commercial qualities.

So, if you’re a genre writer (and that’s all you want to write), think big and bold but always remember that craft is not a substitute for character. All the best genre scripts are remembered for their protagonists rather than their plot. Sure, their plot was what made the film exciting and memorable but only because the hero was worth rooting for all the way. And keep reading scripts, especially the good American genre scripts, as their style and structure is usually a cut-above any kind of genre script that gets shopped around in the UK.

** UPDATE ** Also remember that the UK Film Council are always looking for strong genre scripts. Check out their development fund criteria and submit your hot spec. It's kind of like a competition, and you can enter as many times as you like. It will go through the usual 'Pass/Consider' process of a script reader but hey, it's a wide open scheme for anyone and everyone so we have little excuse not to explore every free and available opportunity.


James said...

I think the answer to the guys question is a plain and simple, "Yes."

Genre writers get raped in screenwriting competitions. Even outstanding writers in reputable competitions.

And it is usually by scripts that stand no chance of ever seeing the screen.

I think this has a lot to do with the unprofessional nature of screenwriting competitions. They hire lots of readers, that tend to be wanna-be writers, that really have very little idea of what a screenplay is all about.

Most scripts I see winning screenplay competitions also read more like novels, than read like a movie on the screen.

Sad, but true.

Lucy V said...

I can see why people think this and I certainly second Danny's pt that genre specs can seem boring or samey - but that's because writers seem to put more emphasis on what is marketable than what is a great story I reckon.

The spec that gets me the most meetings is an arty genre spec so you could make the argument it's a kind of hybrid. No one will probably ever make it. But people tell me it really affects them, someone called it a "modern tragedy" the other day. Of course because it inspires strong feelings people also hate it. But love/hate, it's all the same - the key is in getting a story that people remember and I think spec scripts with HEART are the ones that do just that; they're the ones that get remembered and get you jobs. Put your belief into a story, sweat blood into it, tie yourself in knots over it, think nothing BUT it and that will take you far because it somehow emanates off the page and into the reader's brain.

But I think you can do this with drama OR genre specs. My all-time top 3 of scripts that I've ever read and can remember loads of are a period drama - but also a thriller and horror. The latter two really disturbed me, the horror actually gave me nightmares!

It's easy to say "the reason I'm not getting through is because of the fact I'm writing genre." If you feel that strongly, write a drama. Even if you did write a drama, maybe you still wouldn't get through. Does that then mean you're a crap writer?? Of course not.

Better I think to use contests for the deadlines and focus they give you, treat placing as a bonus. Worry about writing a fantastic story - there aren't enough of those about, genre OR drama-wise IMHO.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Danny.

A great answer. I'm very glad I asked it now.

carter said...

I agree that the writers seem to put more emphasis on what is marketable than what is a great story

but now the screen wrting has become more easier with the Online screenwriting software
Its a great collaborative screenwriting tool. The public projects are a lot of fun, and
the private projects allow people to write together more productively than traditional
screenwriting tools.

Anonymous said...

That was a wonderfully skillful piece of spam. LOL

Lucy V said...

Indeed - I am in awe. Though not as much as the time I got a link put in one of my comments that said "big sausage" and when you clicked on it, it was a photo of AN ACTUAL SAUSAGE. Genius.

Anonymous said...

Hi Danny. Got a question about rewriting.

I've just finished a draft of a script and had some feedback from two people - both people I have a lot of respect for. They've both been positive, but, as is the way with these things, they've given completely contradictory feedback on aspect of the script. I've been worried about rewriting the script - I'm still inexperienced enough about where to start taking my cherished narrative apart and put it back together again. The script is now going into exile in my sock drawer for six weeks or so. What kind of decisions should I be making when I get it out again and start the dreaded process of rewriting?